Thomas Hart Benton was born at Hillsboro, North Carolina, March 14th, 1782. During his youth he enjoyed few educational advantages, his father dying while he was a child.
He, however, persevered and completed his studies at Chapel Hill University—supporting himself throughout his school course. Removing to Tennessee he began the study of law and commenced practice at Nashville, where he arose to eminence at the bar. When elected to the legislature of the State, an event which occurred soon after his beginning law practice in Nashville, he procured the passage of a bill securing to slaves the right oftrial by jury. In the war of 1812 he was made a lieutenant-colonel, serving on the staff of General Jackson.
In 1814-15 Colonel Benton took up his residence in St. Louis, Missouri, and established the Missouri Enquirer. It is stated that this enterprise involved him in several duels, one of which resulted fatally to his opponent, Mr. Lucas. Mr. Benton took a leading part in the admission of his adopted State into the Union, and in 1820 he was elected one of her first senators, and remained a member of the national government for thirty consecutive years; a leader of his party in debate.
He warmly supported Jackson in his administration of the affairs of the government, and as is well-known rendered him valuable and efficient service by his speech on the expunging resolution which he successfully carried through the senate. In 1829 he made a speech on the salt tax, which was a masterly production, and through its influence is due largely the repeal of the same.
He was among the foremost who advocated a railroad to the Pacific coast, and it was Thomas Benton who first introduced the idea of congress granting pre-emption rights to actual settlers. He favored trade with New Mexico, and establishing commerce on the great lakes. He was an eminent specie advocate; so vehement was he that he became known as “old bullion,” and it was through his influence that the forty-ninth parallel was decided upon as the northern boundary of Oregon. He opposed the fugitive slave law, and openly denounced nullification views wherever expressed. Nothing but his known opposition to the extension of slavery caused his final defeat in the legislature when that body chose another to succeed him in the United States senate.
Thus in defence of human liberty ended his splendid career of thirty years in the upper house, struck down by the frown of demagogism. Two years later he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he did noble work in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska act, denouncing it as a violation of the Missouri Compromise, and was defeated as a candidate for congress in the next campaign. After two years devotion to literature he was a candidate for governor of his State, but was defeated by a third ticket being placed in the field. He was the popular candidate, however, of the three, against great odds being defeated by only a few votes.
During this year he supported Mr. Buchanan for the presidency against his son-in-law, Mr. Fremont. He now retired permanently from public life, devoting his exclusive attention to literature, and his “Thirty Years View; or a History of the Working of the United States Government for Thirty Years from 1820 to 1850,” was a masterly piece of literature, and reached a mammoth sale; more than sixty thousand copies being sold when first issued. When this was finished he immediately began another, “An Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1789 to 1850.” Although at the advanced age of seventy-six, he labored at this task daily, the latter part of which was dictated while on his death-bed, and while he could speak only in whispers. Surely he deserved the success which had attended his efforts. He died in Washington on the 10th day of April, 1858.
He had a large and grandly proportioned head, and was a most aggressive debater. It was in the Expunging Resolution and the exciting debates in which he bore so prominent a part that he gained his greatest reputation. This bill and the manner in which he managed its course through the senate, securing its adoption against the combined effort of such men as Clay, Webster and Calhoun illustrates the characteristics of the man more clearly than anything that could be said of him. When reading the life of Andrew Jackson the reader will remember that the senate passed a resolution condemning the action of the president, Mr. Jackson, in regard to the distribution of the public funds in the following language: Resolved, That the president in the late executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.
The motion of Mr. Benton was to strike from the journals of the senate this resolution of censure. In support of the president’s course and of Mr. Benton’s proposed method of vindication various public proceedings were had in various sections of the country, and some of the State legislatures not only voted in favor of the removal of the record of censure but instructed their congressional delegations to use their influence and votes in a similar direction.
Mr. Benton’s resolutions rehearsed the principal points involved in the past history and present aspects of the controversy quite at length, the closing resolution being as follows: “That the said resolve be expunged from the journal, and for that purpose that the secretary of the Senate at such time as the Senate may appoint, shall bring the manuscript journal of the session 1883-4 into the Senate, draw black lines round the said resolve, and write across the face thereof in strong letters the following words: ‘Expunged by order of the Senate this—day of—, in the year of our Lord—.'”
For three years successively did Mr. Benton bring forward on different occasions his celebrated motion, and again and again he suffered defeat after the most scathing debates that ever took place in any parliamentary body, the Senate at this time containing an unusual amount of oratorical talent and forensic power. But the last scene, and with it victory to the great Missourian and his presidential master, was now near at hand, and this scene, as described by Mr. Benton himself, was as follows:
Saturday the fourteenth of January the Democratic Senators agreed to have a meeting, and to take their final measures for passing an expunging resolution. They knew they had the numbers, but they also knew they had adversaries to grapple with to whom might be applied the motto of Louis Fourteenth: ‘Not an unequal match for numbers.’ They also knew that members of the party were in process of separating from it and would require reconciliating. They met in the night at the then famous restaurant of Boulanger giving to the assemblage the air of convivial entertainment. It continued till midnight and required all the moderation, tact and skill of the prime movers to obtain and maintain the Union in details on the success of which depended the fate of the measure. The men of concilliation were to be the efficient men of that night, and all the winning resources of Wright, Allen and Linn were put in requisition. There were serious differences upon the method of expurgation, while agreed upon the thing; and finally obliteration, the favorite mover, was given up and the mode of expurgation adopted which had been proposed in the resolution of the general assembly of Virginia, namely, to inclose the obnoxious sentence in a square of black lines—an oblong square, a compromise of opinions to which the mover agreed upon condition of being allowed to compose the epitaph, “Expunged by the order of the senate.”
The agreement which was to lead to victory was then adopted, each one severally pledging himself to it that there should be no adjournment of the senate after the resolution was called until it was passed, and that it should be called immediately after the morning business on the Monday ensuing. Expecting a protracted session extending through the day and night, and knowing the difficulty of keeping men steady to their work and in good humor when tired and hungry, the mover of the proceeding took care to provide as far as possible against such a state of things, and gave orders that night to have an ample supply of cold hams, turkeys, rounds of beef, pickles, wines and cups of hot coffee ready in a certain committee-room near the senate chamber by four o’clock on the afternoon of Monday.
The motion to take up the subject was made at the appointed time, and immediately a debate of long speeches, chiefly on the other side, opened itself upon the question. As the darkness of approaching night came on and the great chandelier was lit up, splendidly illuminating the chamber then crowded with the members of the house, and the lobbies and galleries filled to their utmost capacity with visitors and spectators, the scene became grand and impressive. A few spoke on the side of the resolution, chiefly Rivers, Buchanan and Niles, and with an air of ease and satisfaction that bespoke a quiet determination and consciousness of victory.
The committee-room was resorted to in parties of four and six at a time, always leaving enough on watch, and not resorted to by one side alone. The opposition were invited to a full participation, an invitation of which those who were able to maintain their temper availed themselves of, but the greater part were not in a humor to eat anything—especially at such a feast. The night was wearing away, the expungers were in full force, masters of the chamber happy and visibly determined to remain. It became evident to the great opposition leaders that the inevitable hour had come that the ‘damnable deed was to be done that night,’ and that the dignity of silence was no longer to them a tenable position.
The battle was going against them, and they must go into it without being able to re-establish it. In the beginning they had not considered the expunging movement a serious proceeding, as it advanced they still expected it to miscarry on some point, now the reality of the thing stood before them confronting their presence and refusing to “down” at any command.
Mr. Calhoun opposed the measure in a speech of great severity. The day, said he, is gone, night approaches and night is suitable to the dark deed we meditate; there is a sort of destiny in this thing, the act must be performed, and it is an act which will tell upon the political history of this country forever. Mr. Clay indulged in unmeasured denunciation of the whole thing. The last speech in opposition to the measure was made by Mr. Webster, who employed the strongest language he could command condemnatory of an act which he declared was so unconstitutional, so derogatory to the character of the senate, and marked with so broad an impression of compliance with power. But though thus pronounced an irregular and unconstitutional proceeding by Mr. Webster and the other senators with whom he sided and voted, Mr. John Quincy Adams, who was at the time a member of the house, and in direct antagonism, politically, with Mr. Benton, and to the Jackson administration held a different opinion.
Midnight was now approaching. The dense masses which filled every inch of the room in the lobbies and in the galleries remained immovable. No one went out, no one could get in. The floor of the Senate was crammed with privileged persons, and it seemed that all Congress was there. Expectation and determination to see the conclusion were depicted on every countenance. It was evident there was to be no adjournment until the vote should be taken—until the deed was done, and this aspect of invincible determination had its effect upon the ranks of the opposition. They began to falter under a useless resistance; they alone now did the talking, and while Mr. Webster was yet reciting his protest two Senators from the opposition side who had been best able to maintain their equanimity, came around to the mover of the resolution and said: ‘This question has degenerated into a trial of nerves and muscles. It has become a question of physical endurance, and we see no use in wearing ourselves out to keep off for a few hours longer what has to come before we separate. We see that you are able and determined to carry your measure—so call the vote as soon as you please. We shall say no more.’
Webster concluded. No one arose. There was a pause, a dead silence, and an intense feeling. Presently the silence was invaded by the single word ‘question’—the parliamentary call for a vote—rising from the seats of different Senators. One blank in the resolve remained to be filled—the date of its adoption. It was done. The acting President of the Senate, Mr. King, of Alabama, then directed the roll to be called. The yeas and nays had been previously ordered, and proceeded to be called by the Secretary of the Senate, the result showing a majority of five on the side of the expungers.
The passage of the resolution was announced by the chair. Mr. Benton arose, and said that nothing now remained but to execute the order of the Senate, which he moved to be done forthwith. It was ordered accordingly. The secretary thereupon produced the original manuscript journal of the Senate, and opening at the page which contained the condemnatory sentence of March 28, 1834, proceeded in open Senate to draw a square of broad black lines around the sentence, and to write across its face in strong letters: Expunged by order of the Senate this 16th day of January, 1837.